Those who try to understand military policy often confuse themselves by focusing on minor matters such as strategy, tactics, logistics, and armament. Here they err. For years the central goal of the military, the brass ring, has been independence from control by civilians. It has been achieved.
In time of war, the first concern of the command is to limit the flow of information to their publics. The actions of the enemy are an important but secondary consideration. Thus militaries strive to prevent the dissemination of photos of mutilated soldiers or, as in Washington today, of governmentally tortured prisoners. In the United States, which characteristically fights wars unrelated to the safety of the country, the Pentagon must also keep soldiers from being told that they are being sacrifice for the benefit of arms manufacturers and imperialist ambitions. In wars before Vietnam, this was adroitly effected. You could go to jail for criticizing a war.
In Vietnam, something new happened. The press covered the war freely. Reporters went where they pleased, beyond the control of the military. Their publications ran the results. National magazines printed horrific photographs of what was really happening.
Truth tells. The coverage was one of the two factors that forced Washington to quit the war. The other was the passionate unwillingness of young men to be forced to fight a war in which they had no interest. The war, a source of meaning for Washington’s thunderous hawks and fern-bar Napoleons, was getting them killed.
The military of Vietnam wasn’t very good at fighting, and neither is the military of today. GIs in Asia would assault a hill, usually of no importance, and, after three days, with the aid of helicopters, helo gunships, napalm, artillery, and fighter-bombers, would capture it. This would be called a triumph. The astute observed that if the Americans had to fight on equal terms, without overwhelming material superiority, they would last perhaps ten minutes. This is now a recognized pattern. Note that numerically superior and hugely armed American forces have been outfought for years by lightly armed Afghan goat herds. Since neither the wars nor the soldiers in them are of much importance, this doesn’t matter.
The Pentagon learned a lot from Vietnam: It learned that its greatest enemies are the press and the American public. The burning question became how to keep the goddam public from interfering in wars which were none of its business and, particularly in the award of large contracts.
The problem was solved in two major ways. The first was to end the draft and go to the All Volunteer Army. The command realized that if they conscripted kids from Yale and the University of Virginia to come back in body bags, the prospective conscriptees, their girlfriends, and their families would take to the streets. This would threaten the smooth flow of funds. If volunteer kids from Tennessee died, no one would care.
The second step in keeping the public out of the loop was to control the press. This was done partly by “embedding” reporters in American military units in the victim country. The control was furthered, more by happenstance than plan, by the amalgamation of the major media in a few large corporations which then controlled content. It worked.
A third and crucial element was the quiet and de facto abolition of the restrictions imposed by the Constitution. As long as that document was held to be canonical, Congress would have to declare war before the military could attack anyone. A congressman voting for a war would have to explain to his constituents why he wanted to spend a trillion dollars on killing remote peasants when his jurisdiction had crumbling schools. People in Oklahoma might ask, “Can’t we grow our own goat herds more cheaply and kill them here?”
Congress was happy to shed this responsibility, or for that matter any responsibility. And so it did. The Commander-in-Chief was now able to send troops anywhere he pleased. It was his private army. He could , in effect, contract out the US military to Israel to crush its enemies or to the petro-interests to try to capture oil fields.
However, this happy canvas was not yet raised to Rafaelsesque perfection. There was still the awkward, though now minor, matter of body bags. The Presidency did what it could. It forbade the filming of flag-draped coffins coming into Dover Air Force Base on grounds of protecting the privacy of the occupants. Logicians might question just what intimate private details a photo of a box might reveal. But the public wasn’t William of Ockham. The point was to keep the rubes from knowing what the shrapnel cone of an RPG does the the head of Jimmy Jack Perkins of Memphis.
However, the damage was controllable. Not to Jimmy Jack’s head, but to the Army’s PR persona. That was what the Army cared about. Yet…things were not quite perfect. An awful lot of kids were coming back from obscure wars with TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), which is what happens when seventy-five pounds of C4 in an IED blows. It turns said kid’s brain into the equivalent of a pudding stirred by an enthusiastic but poorly trained chef. For the next fifty years he stumbles, mumbles, drools, shuffles, and has the IQ of a duckbill platypus.
This was not a serious difficulty. The corporate media were in line, so there was no danger that CBS would do a hostile expose. Besides, with luck the creep would die early. But it was still a potential source of political blowback.
A solution appeared: Drones. They were wonderful, serving several purposes at once. They cost not as much as fighter planes, but enough to funnel lots of loot to contractors.. No body bags ever came back and so didn’t need to be hidden. Drones could be flown by wet-lipped sociopaths in air-conditioned comfort in Colorado. They couldn’t win a war, but neither could they lose one. This was ideal, since either winning or losing would slow the award of contracts.
The remaining bump in the road to full emancipation was the military budget. This matter was neutralized by the major media, which had become for practical purposes minor federal departments. In Mein Kampf, der Fuehrer pointed out that the masses would eventually believe any idea repeated often enough. A corollary was that the masses would ignore any idea mentioned only once or twice. Hiding financial grotesquery was not necessary. It sufficed to mention it briefly in paragraph seventeen or, on the tube, in passing in tones usually used in reporting uneventful weather. Done.
Close. Very close. There was no longer a single columnist in the major media who actually knew the technology, bureaucracy, and tactics of the military, or had been near a rifle. The networks could therefore hire retired colonels to explain that the military was dedicated to truth, justice, and the American way. The final condom in this chain of chastity was the president asserting that America was a city on a hill and a beam of light for darkened mankind, who to reach heaven needed only to give us their oil fields.
In sum, the foregoing measures constituted the greatest military victory since Waterloo. Neither Congress or the goddam public could any longer meddle where it had no business meddling. Fewer and fewer troops actually went to war, so the unpatriotic bastards couldn’t disrupt the war effort by coming home in body bags. The Pentagon had achieved its long-sought emancipation. It looked forward to killing any peasants who struck its fancy with the insouciant independence of a trust-fund baby in the fleshpots of the Orient.
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well, A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be, Curmudgeing Through Paradise: Reports from a Fractal Dung Beetle, Au Phuc Dup and Nowhere to Go: The Only Really True Book About VietNam, and A Grand Adventure: Wisdom’s Price-Along with Bits and Pieces about Mexico. Visit his blog.